William Lyon Mackenzie, a Scottish native, was a journalist with a strong sense of social justice. He became the first Mayor of Toronto and a member of the House of Assembly for York County.
Mackenzie was a leading critic of the ruling oligarchic elite of Upper Canada. Mackenzie began to organize an armed resistance to the ruling government.
In December of 1837, Mackenzie led a small insurrection against the British at York (Toronto). Following this unsuccessful coup d’ état, with a bounty of 1000 £ (lira, former currency of Italy until the Euro was used) for his apprehension, Mackenzie fled through the Niagara Peninsula to the home of sympathizers along the shore of the Niagara River. From constant pursuing by British troops, Mackenzie fled by boat to Grand Island.
On December 13th 1837, Mackenzie and his group of 300 – 400 rebel supporters had taken refuge on Navy Island. Most rebels were unemployed Americans. Here Mackenzie proclaimed himself Chief of State of the New Republic of Canada and began to organize his new provision government. He further declared Navy Island to be the new home of his government. Bonds were sold to finance the new government. Weapons and money were obtained from sympathizers and other supporters.
The American steamboat “Caroline” was used to transport men, arms, munitions and supplies from Buffalo to Navy Island.
Navy Island is Canadian territory as specified in the Treaty of the Ghent. It is the only Canadian Island in the Niagara River.
A growing concern over Mackenzie and his rebel supporters, and the takeover of Navy Island caused the Government of Upper Canada to send Colonel Allan Napier MacNab and his militia to handle them.
The British bombarded Navy Island however it had little effect. On January 14th 1838, Mackenzie and his supporters moved to Grand Island again. Both sides continued to bombard each other which threatened to escalate into war with the Americans.
Knowing that the only mode of transportation and communication that the Mackenzie rebels had was the steamship “Caroline”, MacNab ordered to destroy it.
The “Caroline” was docked at Fort Schlosser in Manchester (Niagara Falls), New York. To destroy the “Caroline”, the British would have to invade American soil and risk re-igniting the War of 1812.
At night on December 29th 1837, British troops invaded Fort Schlosser. They set fire to the steamboat “Caroline” and set her adrift. The “Caroline” plunged to her destruction over the Falls.
The British agreed to pay the Americans for any damage while they allowed the prisoner of war, Alexander McLeod free and not to put him on trail for the killing of an American soldier.
The destruction of the “Caroline” put an end to the plans of William Lyon Mackenzie and his rebel supporters. General Winfield Scott ordered American troops aboard the steamer “Barcelona” to remove MacKenzie and his supporters from Grand Island and transported them to Black Rock (Buffalo) as three armed British Schooners watched.
Mackenzie was later arrested by U.S. officials for breach of the Neutrality Act.
On June 11th 1838, 36 men sympathetic to Mackenzie under the leadership of James Morrow, invaded the Niagara Peninsula from Grand Island. They pushed inland to the Short Hills (Fonthill / Pelham). Here they and 22 additional supporters attacked a group of 13 British soldiers. The British soldiers surrendered only to be rescued a short time later by another platoon of British soldiers.
James Morrow was hanged. The other supporters were banished to Tasmania.